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Father of Modern Skiing


On this date in 1868, a man named Sondre Norheim competed in Norway’s very first national skiing competition. He had never competed outside his home territory of Telemark before and had to make the three-day journey to Christiania (now known as Oslo) on foot.

At the competition, Norheim made history in more ways than one. He was not only the undisputed winner, he demonstrated revolutionary new moves called the Telemark turn and the slalom, which was later called the Christiana Turn. He was using radically different equipment, including specialized foot binding that allowed for sharp turning. He also perfected a shorter, curved ski shape that became the model for modern Alpine skis.

Rock carvings indicate skis had been used in Norway for at least 4,000 years by the time Norheim came along. He was born to tenant farmers in Morgedal in Telemark County on June 10th, 1825, but his mother died when he was only two. Sondre and his older brother were sent to live with their grandparents at _verbø until their father remarried.

Sondre’s new stepmother overtly favored his brother, so Sondre spent a lot of time outside on his homemade skis. While skiing was simply a mode of transportation for most people, Sondre and others turned it into something more. When he married his wife Rannei at age 29, people thought he would slow down, but that didn’t happen. It was a particularly fruitful time for skiers, with increasingly stiff competitions and much experimentation with techniques and equipment.

Many considered Norheim reckless – like his skiing off the rooftop of his father’s house. But he usually succeeded with his experiments. For example, in 1866 he took first place in what’s now considered to be the world’s first ski jumping competition. He was 41 by then – two years before he won that fateful, first, national, ski championship in Christiania.

Norheim struggled to make ends meet and, when he was 59, moved the family to Minnesota to join two children who had already emigrated there. After a short time, the family moved to a McHenry County farm near Denbeigh, midway between Rugby and Minot. There’s little record of him skiing after that, but it’s said he taught skiing to area children.

Sondre Norheim died on March 9, 1897, at the age of 71 and was buried in an unmarked grave west of the farm. In his hometown of Morgedal, he had become a folk hero, and a memorial ceremony was held when he died. Books were written about him, and in 1925 a memorial was erected to him in Morgedal. In 1949, childhood home at _verbø was turned into a museum.

When the Olympic Winter Games were held Oslo in ‘52, the Olympic Torch was lit at _verbø, which happened again in 1960 for the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, USA. The Squaw Valley tribute fire is still said to be burning, as is one at the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot.

Dorothy Lyon, Sondre Norheim’s great-grandchild, identified Sondre’s grave at the Norway Lutheran Church Cemetery south of Denbeigh in 1965, and a memorial plaque was placed there. Princess Astrid visited the grave in 1983 when she attended the Norsk Høstfest in Minot.

The “Father of Modern Skiing” was inducted into the US National Ski Hall of Fame, and four years later, identical statues of him were erected in Minot and also back in Norway. Now, a wreath-laying ceremony takes place each year at Norheim’s grave in conjunction with Høstfest.